2011 FIFA Women's World Cup: A Salute to Nadeshiko Japan, the Angels of Asia
Out there in the Land of the Rising Sun, where Mount Fuji watches over his people with a calm, resolute demeanor, there is a team that plays with heavy hearts, and wings on their backs.
They have seen their countrymen and countrywomen lost in the wrath of Mother Nature, never to find them again.
Yet, in spite of the adversity and desperation that surrounds them, they find their strength that comes from within and they use it as a tribute to those that were gone.
They are Nadeshiko Japan, the Japanese women's national football team, the Angels of Asia. Led by their manager, Norio Sasaki, and their celebrated captain Homare Sawa, Japan are one step closer to fulfilling the ultimate tribute to those who have gone: a FIFA Women's World Cup.
Size does not matter for Nadeshiko Japan. They rely on speed, technique, skill and a team-oriented determination that propelled them to historic victories over the hosts Germany and European power Sweden. Japan play an exciting, free-flowing brand of football that, some may say, drips with divinity.
Forward Shinobu Ohno of L.League powerhouse INAC Kobe Leonessa, opted to keep her feet on the ground, acknowledging that Japan's job is only half-finished.
“Just being in the top four does not necessarily mean we are one of the top countries,” Ohno told FIFA.com. “We need to win a medal and be a champion in order for people in the world to believe in Japan, so still we are not satisfied with our achievements to date.
“Germany is a country that we had never beaten, but now that we have experienced that challenge, we should not be satisfied and we need to go for the top. We realise that the championship is getting closer and closer.
“We will play as a team and try and express what we have been doing for the past four years. We will play to our strengths, not give up, work as a team and try to show some individual strengths."
Indeed, Nadeshiko Japan have exceeded all expectations when it came to their approach. A third-place finisher at the 2010 AFC Asian Cup, victories over New Zealand and Mexico over a defeat to England placed them in the quarterfinals with Germany.
But Karina Maruyama silenced a nation of nearly 82 million strong in the 108th minute and a brace from Nahomi Kawasumi was enough for Japan to pull off another surprise victory, this time over Sweden.
Still, teams on the cusp of greatness require a leader, and Japan's No. 10 fits that role to a T.
"[Homare Sawa] is the undisputed leader of our team," Sasaki said to FIFA.com. "She symbolises exactly the style of football our team should play. For 15 years, she has been part of the national team and she symbolises the entire history of women's football in Japan.
"Physical contact is always a problem against European teams, which mostly leaves the Japanese players lying on the floor. But Homare is a player with enormous capabilities in terms of her ability to win the ball and keep possession. She fights for the ball and can immediately counter-attack."
Sawa leads the tournament with four goals and is close to securing the Golden Boot. But it will mean little consolation to the former Washington Freedom star if Japan fail to secure the ultimate prize in women's football.
“There are not a lot of things we can do directly for people suffereing because of the earthquake, but we can try and make a small contribution through football,” Ohno said. “We can express something through football and in that way the Nadeshiko can make small contribution for the people affected."
Ohno emphasized the long-term effects that can come with success in the FIFA Women's World Cup.
“We want young girls and young children to believe in the Nadeshiko and believe that the team is a special thing,” Ohno said. “Hopefully that way, more players will be inspired and want to choose football as their number one sport.”
As for Ohno herself, the thought of being in a final is something the Nadeshiko have sought for so long.
“I don’t know how I would feel on the pitch in the final," Ohno remarked. "It has been a dream for us for a long time.
"We can’t imagine how it would feel but we are looking forward to hopefully achieving our dream.”
On Wednesday, that dream of being in the Final has been fulfilled. Only the United States, the two-time victors of women's football's richest prize, stand in the way.
But if the recent slate of results tell anything for those who have seen it and believe it, the heavens of destiny may be awaiting the arrival of the Angels of Asia...Nadeshiko Japan.
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